The Fear of Change: A 50 Year Perspective

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Change is frightening, whether it’s a person coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis or an evangelical minister learning his son is gay. Both are forced to let go of cherished beliefs for a world that has the stability of Jell-O.

For thirty years, I’ve seen it in clients who have lost lifelong abilities due to chronic illnesses and patients who are nearing the end of their lives. What I didn’t realize until recently is that what my clients and patients experienced are similar to the angst of social conservatives.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. It engendered hope in some and fear in others. Since then, many events have had similar effects including the peace movement, LGBT rights, the election of an African-American president, the Affordable Care Act, and increased voter access.

Each of these was a lightening rod for cultural change as traumatic to their opponents as were the loss of my client’s abilities and the terminal diagnoses of my patients. And just as those I have served who had difficulty adjusting to their new worlds, so do those whose values are under attack. 1964, my parents couldn’t understand why I would go to Alabama to march for equal rights for African Americans. Trying to explain why I was in jail in Montgomery on a hunger strike was frightening to them and unfathomable to their first-generation American friends.

In 1965, I didn’t anticipate the physical threat level to me, and other members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at a peaceful demonstration when we asked only to have a conversation about the war in Vietnam.

I wasn’t prepared for the angry reactions in 2009 to the articles I wrote on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) from people who were delighted with Medicare, but feared governmentIt's Not Our Fault.150 intrusion into their health care. And I was astounded when those who entered into a dialogue with me admitted they never read one word of the more than 600 page document, but rather, were relying on the unimpeachable sources of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

I was disappointed by the level of vehemence against LGBT rights in 2012 from African-American ministers who walked side-by-side with me for their own civil rights in Alabama, couldn’t see any parallels between what they sought in the 1960’s and what my GLBT friends were demanding in 2013.

From 2008 to the present, I found inexplicable the hyperbolic ranting of senators, congressman, political commentators, and Donald Trump about anything President Obama proposed. I knew their “just say no,” philosophy couldn’t be based only on political differences.

What I’ve recently come to realize is that these individuals, and others who identify themselves as “social conservatives,” have much in common with individuals I served who have lost abilities because of chronic or acute illnesses, or are facing death. Social conservatives—just as my clients and patients—are being pulled from a world were rules are understood and expectations are known, into one that at the very least makes them uncomfortable, and at the worst, attacks values that have shaped their lives. It’s a changing world that’s moving faster than they can.

Although voter suppression is the most current example of this discomfort, it’s the same millennium-old fear of change dressed up in modern clothes. The Tea Party’s slogan, “We want our country back,” echoes the fear of found in my culturally insular parents, anti-gay African-American ministers, people with European ancestors who oppose immigration reform, and politicians who long for the days when political power was mostly in the hands of white, protestant Americans.

Change is frightening. Whether it’s the Archbishop of San Francisco professing centuries’ old dogma, Rand Paul living in the fictionalized world of an elitist novelist, my mother trying to understand her son, or your pleasant neighbor harboring strange beliefs about the superiority of one race. All are being dragged, kicking and screaming from a life as comfortable as an old easy chair, into a strange new world.

And what is being challenged is not just an isolated behavior or value, it’s usually something integral to their identity; something that has given meaning to a lifetime of actions and beliefs.

Social conservatives are not just being asked to “do the right thing” because it’s moral. They are being asked to abandon belief systems that have served as the foundation for their personality—whether it’s the belief in racial superiority, the holy union of marriage, a bootstrap approach to life, or who has the right to govern.

So when we listen to rationales that make no sense, drip with hate, or bring us back to a time when justice was a term that didn’t apply to some people, we shouldn’t be surprised. Most are expressions of loss that are as significant to social conservatives as the losses are to the disabled or those coming to terms with the end of their life. you watch the hysterical ranting of Fox commentators, read the bizarre justifications of anti-science congressmen denying the existence of greenhouse gases, or are physically confronted by someone who believes our president is the devil incarnate, you might view it as a direct attack against you and your beliefs, but don’t. In the words of the characters in The Godfather, “It’s nothing personal.” It’s not about you or about what they are railing against. It’s a reaction to threats against their identity and way of life. There will always be new social lightning rods, most of which we can’t imagine. But the fear of change will remain constant.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Diana Kern

    Great article but not long enough for me! I want some action items. I want to know what I can do to build bridges and make a foundation of common ground. My family thinks the opposite as me. I feel like I need to understand where they are coming from in order to develop better relationships with them.

  2. Charles (Chuck) Maack

    Ah, Stan, you resurrect in my mind much I have followed through my 80 years. In many ways my thoughts/opinions are similar to yours. I honestly have concern for what the lives of my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren have yet to experience after I have passed on to what my faith says will be peace and serenity. I am both concerned that our country is weakening at so many levels, yet I continue my deep faith that we can rise to any necessity. I was born at a time of the depression, a kid into World War II, a teenager at the end of that war, poor to the level I had no idea what was going to become of me, and enlisted in the Navy the day after I turned 17. That was probably the most important thing I did with my life having then enjoyed the challenge of learning my military specialty in order to advance, along with marrying and beginning/raising a family, and making the Navy a 27 year career. I am proud to have served my country, proud to have been a good husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and currently thankful that God has blessed me with sufficient intelligence (and continuing life) so that in my retired years I have been able to continue for several years to serve as a mentor regarding prostate cancer to men and their caregivers. Sorry, Stan, I’m rambling….you have a way of opening our thoughts and memories.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Chuck,

      Feel free to ramble, there’s always so much wisdom in your thoughts and history. Sometimes I think it doesn’t make too much sense to worry about the future, since we don’t have control over it, and will be around for only a small part of it. Just like you, I try to find satisfaction in what I have done and can do now.

      Take Care,

  3. Luke Vorstermans

    While going through a difficult time, a good friend said to me “Welcome pressure. It’s needed to bring about change.”

    Not really comforting at the time but I got the point!

    In the global scheme of things, millions of people are starving, the Middle East is in agnst over democracy, the Chinese are chocking in their pollution, Indian women live with a tolerable acceptance of rape…. gee, real gut wrenching issues.

    We here have it pretty good. We can fuss about the issues you mentioned because our basic needs are taken care of… Much of the world still struggles with inclusion.

    We have this pressure coming to bare on our institutions, morality and beliefs. Fox and CNN, et al, trivialize the issues, fans the stirred emotions and create more news (and more pressure).

    Rallying ar the anti-war demonstrations, the race marches, the gay issue, etc… while critical to our expanding awareness, has been accomplished with few causualties compared to… say the murder of a 1000 in Eygpt in just the past few weeks. That’s pressure!!

    You’re so right on… Letting go never happens until the pressure is sufficient to make it happen. The question is: How much pressure do you need before you’re willing to let go and accept the inevitability of change?

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Luke,

      I’m not too optimistic that our fear of change will diminish, despite the occurrence of crises like the ones you mentioned. Although I’m not an historian, even the most cursory look at the human experience says that the more threatening the change, the more opposition there is to it. Hopefully I’m wrong. Thanks for the comments.

      Take Care,

  4. Katharine Dupre

    Nice to read one of your always thoughtful articles. I’ve missed seeing them lately.

    Yes, change is everywhere especially right now but change for the sake of change is not necessarily wise. In my mind, wisdom is needed to understand what will better society and what won’t. And that’s not a simple problem!

    In the meantime it’s important to be tolerant enough to allow others to believe differently without censuring them.

    One of the not so pleasant changes in our society is the complete intolerance exhibited by many people who appear to think they know everything and therefore have the right and the duty to force others to accept their beliefs or be ridiculed, censured and called vile names! In some blogs and media it’s gotten totally ugly. It leaves one feeling ravaged for having read the words.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Katharine,

      Thanks for the kind words. And I agree with your observations. I can still remember a time when political disagreements had some civility to them regardless if it came from the left, center, or right. I don’t know if it’s just that we are becoming less civil or the fear of change has increased.

      Take Care,

      • Becky

        I don’t believe it’s due to an increased fear of change. Unfortunately, I think many people in our society are becoming increasingly greedy, self-centered, and less civil, caring only about themselves rather than rather than working together and helping one another. It really is sad.

      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Becky,

        I agree that things seem to be getting more uncivil. But the question for me is why? I’m always interested in trying to find the antecedent conditions for any major changes.

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